Fact Checking the Conservationists on International Drive

In the August 2, 2016 edition of the Sun News, an “Other Voices” letter about the International Drive project, written by Amy Armstrong of the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, Dana Beach of the Coastal Conservation League and Ben Gregg of the South Carolina Wildlife Federation (Conservationists), appeared in the Opinion Section .

This letter claims the delays in paving International Drive are not due to Conservation efforts. In that letter, the Conservationists make many pernicious and blatantly false claims. The letter demonstrates that the Conservationists view their readership to be woefully uninformed and gullible to gargantuan proportion. In fact, they may depend on that.

Let’s fact check those claims, based on an Administrative Law Court Ruling issued on July 7 this year and other resources so that a factual voice of our community can be heard.

The letter claims Horry County “reneged” on an earlier contractual agreement and “pressured” DNR to remove their requirement for bear crossings. Law Court: “Petitioners attempted to support the need for bear tunnels based upon the inference that but for the nefarious negotiations between Horry and DNR between 2010 and 2013, the bear tunnel requirement would not have been eliminated from the permit. But Petitioners failed to meet their burden of proof in this respect. As explained above, the change in DNR’s position occurred as a result of a significant decline in the existence of bears in LOB. Furthermore, the director of DNR unequivocally denied that any such underhanded dealings took place between Horry and DNR leading up to the 2013 agreement. The Court found his testimony highly credible and persuasive”.

The letter portends a concern for the large number of Carolina Bays in the area and that the road would compromise the public trust by breaking up habitat and lower its wildlife value. Law Court: “Petitioners assert that the road project would directly impact Carolina Bays. However, Petitioners expert, Daniel Tufford, admitted that he had not conducted any wetlands delineation for this project to quantify any encroachment. To the contrary, Britt Feldner, an experienced expert in wetlands delineation, conducted an on-the-ground wetlands delineation for this project, including identifying whether there were Carolina Bays. He explained that no Carolina Bays would be directly impacted by this project. I find his testimony persuasive”.

The letter references meetings with Horry County officials and Carolina Forest representatives. The first of the two meetings with Horry County was reported as “positive” by both parties. The second, however, was reported to have ended “very badly”. According to County Chairman Lazarus, “their requests now included taller fences, tunnels, an electronic detection device and re-writing the approved mitigation plan to include $1.6 million for a nature conservancy”. The meeting with Carolina Forest representatives is incorrect – it was with Highway 90 corridor residents of which I was one. A post meeting email from me to Nancy Cave and Dana Beach reads in part “At the conclusion of the meeting, it was obvious to us that our very real public safety concerns were of no concern to the Coastal Conservation League or the SC Wildlife Federation. We base our conclusion on the fact that, with the exception of withdrawing the need for an electronic animal detection system and adding a limitation on the number of curb cuts along the roadway as an additional term, your terms for withdrawing your International Drive appeal were no different going into the meeting than walking out of the meeting. All that while continuing to hedge on the location of the wetlands mitigation properties”.

The letter claims that the record of car/bear collisions on highways surrounding Lewis Ocean Bay should send a strong signal that wildlife passageways, bear tunnels, are necessary and the proposed 45 mph speed limit is inadequate. Law Court: “Petitioners failed to adequately establish either the effectiveness of such tunnels or, more importantly, that the currently proposed protections – i.e., speed limits and highway fencing – would fail to provide the same or similar protections. On the contrary, there was evidence that the tunnels may be ineffective and that the high fencing necessary to direct bears to the tunnels may itself cause fatal bear strikes by trapping the animals on the roadway”. “In fact, there is bridging under Highway 22 which creates crossings that bears could use rather than climbing up the embankment and crossing that roadway. Highway 22 nevertheless has the second highest number of bear kills by vehicle collisions in Horry County. The evidence ultimately reflected that “bears will go where they want to go” and may not use passageways at all and specifically, if they are too long. Thus, bears might choose not to use similar tunnels if they were placed under International Drive. Indeed, Petitioners’ bear expert rated the chances of the success of the bear tunnels perhaps as low as 20%”. “Petitioners’ own expert witness agreed that a lower speed limit of 45 mph on International Drive would allow motorists to avoid hitting black bears in many, if not most, cases”.

The letter claims that travel distances to hospitals for emergency responders are the same today as when folks purchased their property. For the residents along the Highway 90 corridor, this is the only truthful yet most OUTRAGEOUS statement in the entire piece. How utterly arrogant is that statement? So we should not make things better, we should live with it – or die with it.  Law Court: “The proposed road will significantly improve the health and safety of a substantial part of the County’s population by allowing quicker access by emergency responders, allowing quicker access for them to trauma centers, emergency rooms, and other critical health services, and improving firefighting capabilities and hurricane evacuation”.

The letter claims that the extra curb cuts will draw development-and traffic-to International Drive, so this would not allow the quick drive that some have described. This statement is pure “hogwash” and demonstrates the Conservationists arrogance in being experts in everything. They are now traffic study experts. Law Court: “There was no evidence of any development plans in the area beyond the project that is the subject of this action. Petitioners contend the potential of development warrants denial of 401 and CZC Certifications. However, although the curb cuts create an opportunity for development to occur, the private property tracts adjacent to International Drive are approximately 85 percent wetlands and could not be developed without permits from the Corps, which the evidence established would be difficult to secure. In short, though development could potentially take place on the private property adjacent to International Drive regardless of whether this project moved forward, significant secondary development of the property west of International Drive as a result of the 401 and CZC Certifications is highly unlikely”.

Finally, the letter states that “The Sun News editorial wrongly attributes the delay in this project to our organizations but the impasse is the result of the county’s action”. The intent of this rebuttal is to prove that statement to be completely false, and lay the blame for the delay squarely where it belongs, at the feet of the Coastal Conservation League, the South Carolina Wildlife Federation and the South Carolina Environmental Law Project. The Sun News editorial was spot on.

The letter concludes with the Conservationists saying “we remain willing and ready to work with county officials, residents and the DNR to resolve this dispute”. This is the height of hypocrisy. Over several years, they have continuously increased demands on the county, including a $1.6 million dollar request to a conservancy, to have them allow the project to proceed. DHEC Board denied their request to review their staff’s work in granting the permits to allow the project to move forward. In a contested case hearing, the Administrative Law Court ruled against every single argument the Conservationists put before the Court and the Court denied their request for reconsideration in that contested case.

Sadly, after all of this, including the complete repudiation of their arguments by the Law Court, they still have the option to appeal the Law Court ruling to the State Court of Appeals. They are intent on stopping this project all any and all costs. Costs of safety to the residents of Horry County and costs to their contributors incurred in bringing these actions. Let’s see what they will do next.

Bill Beidleman

Highway 90 Corridor Resident

 

 

 

 

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